Chinese President Xi Jinping faces risks as he pushes ahead with reform to PLA’s military structure
A sharper, leaner armed forces is necessary but Beijing must also take into account livelihood concerns of personnel facing demobilisation
President Xi Jinping has added the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army to his agenda for reform. Beijing has announced guidelines to transform a Soviet-era structure while strengthening political control. What sets the project apart is that it is a monumental institutional shake-up with a target date. Xi has vowed a “breakthrough” by 2020, prompting military analysts to question the “rush” and whether the political and modernisation aims are compatible within that time frame.
The overhaul, outlined by the Central Military Commission after a three-day meeting, is aimed at moving away from an army-centric system towards a Western-style joint command . The army, navy and air force will be equally represented under a consolidation of the seven military command regions – likely into five. It also includes the possible reorganisation of the four general headquarters of staff, political, logistics and armaments, and the establishment of a disciplinary commission within the CMC to tackle corruption at every level of the military.
Ironically, amid rivalry between China and the US, the objective is an American-style structure capable of responding nimbly to modern challenges. It is long overdue. In keeping with China’s investment in projection of power to reflect its global economic rise, it is the biggest change in 30 years since former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping began reducing the number of military personnel. To cut the nation’s defence burden, Deng also allowed PLA officers to profit from accepting civilian patients at military hospitals, leasing military warehouses, outsourcing military construction companies and opening military academies and institutions to public students. The CMC conference has put an end to this to “purify the military ethos” – which will also remove a temptation for corruption.
The reform will further consolidate Xi’s power, following the downfall of key military opponents during his anti-corruption campaign. In the process, however, the PLA will shed 300,000 troops, a retrenchment that will have to be handled with political skill and sensitivity if Xi is to consolidate the support of the military. Indeed, two PLA officials at the mainland’s top military academy, writing in the PLA Daily, have warned Beijing that it could destabilise the armed services and society if it does not take into account the livelihood concerns of personnel facing demobilisation, and adequately address salaries and pensions. Though overdue, the reform is fraught with risks and dangers for the leadership.